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Opinion: 'We will soon see asylum seekers living in sports halls and tents if we don't do something'

Head of the UN Refugee Agency Enda O’Neill says a “road map” is needed to complete reform in Ireland’s asylum system.

Enda O'Neill

AS IRELAND’S ASYLUM system continues to be the subject of extensive national media coverage, one dominant narrative has tended to emerge: Direct Provision is inhumane, racist, humiliating, and degrading; a corrupt institution that has become the next ‘Magdalene Laundries’. 

It is undoubtedly very positive that we have so many people, and young people in particular, who are supportive of refugees and who care deeply about how they are treated.

At the same time a focus on the symptom (prolonged stays in asylum seeker accommodation) and not the cause (delays in the asylum process) leaves little space for discussion, complexity or nuance.

It also fails to take account of recent reforms of the system and ultimately hollows out the centre ground where a broad political settlement must ultimately be found.

Reform process

A high level working group, chaired by retired High Court Judge Bryan McMahon, published its report in June 2015 containing 173 recommendations.

Since the publication of the McMahon Report the Direct Provision system has in fact changed considerably, although a number of important recommendations require further work. It was placed on a statutory footing last year establishing for the first time clear rights and entitlements in law (including rights of appeal).

Financial allowances have been increased to the amounts recommended in the Report, a relatively unfettered system of access to the labour market after 9 months has been introduced (although a shorter period would be preferable), and a new independent complaints mechanisms was established with oversight by the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children’s office.

The introduction of independent living arrangements, self-catering facilities, communal kitchens and other structural changes have also led to significant improvements in many centres.

New ‘person-centred’ standards, which emphasis the rights, dignity, privacy and diversity of each asylum-seeker have recently been finalised, following a public consultation process.

They describe in detail how accommodation centres should ensure dignified living conditions and provide high-quality services which meet the needs of residents.

That is not to say that some centres do not provide better services than others. There is a clear need for standardisation across the system, and an independent inspection mechanism is urgently needed.

But the inconsistency in standards should not be used to condemn an entire system that Justice Bryan McMahon, the Ombudsman and others have recently acknowledged has improved.

Accommodation Crisis

Since September last year, asylum-seekers have been increasingly placed in emergency accommodation (temporary B&Bs and hotels) due to capacity shortages in the Direct Provision system. The numbers of people living in emergency accommodation have grown to almost 1,500 over this 14 month period.

More worryingly, arguments against direct provision are now being used as slogans of convenience in opposition to the provision of emergency accommodation for asylum-seekers as well as the opening of new centres that are urgently needed to add capacity to the system.

As it is, it is extremely challenging for many asylum-seekers living in emergency accommodation to access all of their rights and entitlements; to highlight the imperfections of the Direct Provision system in this context will come of little comfort to these people living in quite precious situations.

This is a serious concern and the time to reverse this trend is now; if we do not we will soon start to see asylum-seekers being accommodated in gymnasiums, in tents or living rough on our streets.

Integration policy

I believe, despite the challenges, there remains ample common ground to bridge the debate across both sides, and find a way to meet the needs both of asylum-seekers and refugees and local populations.

We hear from communities, time and time again, that they want to ensure that newcomers to their area can be successfully integrated. There is an opportunity here to take them at their word, to invite them to come together and to develop approaches to integration that foster cohesive communities and promote diversity and equality.

In doing so we will not be starting from scratch.

The government’s Migrant Integration Strategy requires every local authority area to establish or update a local integration strategy and there are already some examples of good practice, for instance Belonging to Limerick 2017-21 and Cork City of Sanctuary Movement Strategic Plan of Action.

Inter-agency committees have already been established in many local authority areas in order to support refugees resettled to Ireland (predominantly Syrians from Lebanon and Jordan).

Such committees consist of various council officials, including housing representatives, representatives from the local Education and Training Board, Gardaí, HSE and the implementing partner responsible for providing integration support to refugees during their initial period in a new community.

What is needed now, more than ever, is a concerted effort to put such structures on a permanent footing at every local authority area, with dedicated funding streams and effective coordination and monitoring mechanisms tied to national policies and structures.

We have countless examples of local communities coming together to support asylum-seekers and refugees in their area that we can draw upon in seeking to replicate such experiences nationwide.

Welcome groups have been set up across the country near many direct provision centres. In places such as Macroom, Lisdoonvarna and Ballaghadereen, friends of the centre groups have provided volunteers and helped forge links with everything from homework clubs to Men’s Sheds.

Tidy town committees from Wicklow to Cappoquin have teamed up with asylum-seekers to improve their communities. The Sanctuary Runners groups around the country encourage people everywhere to run alongside, and in solidarity with residents. Around many emergency centres, local volunteers often play a crucial role in bridging gaps is state services.

A fast and fair determination system

In the meantime, we must acknowledge that the direct provision system is necessary, at least in the short-term, in order to guarantee that asylum-seekers have somewhere to stay.

Since the year 2000, over 40 reports have been published on the subject which again and again highlight one point above all others: the biggest issue identified by asylum-seekers is not the accommodation system itself, but waiting times.

The McMahon Report set out in great detail how it was to everyone’s benefit to bring them down, demonstrating how the costs of accommodating asylum-seekers far outweigh the costs of a fast and fair determination system. 

An applicant who applies for international protection today can expect to receive a first instance recommendation or decision within approximately 15 months, provided that no complications arise.

Prioritised cases are being processed in just under 9 months. The Department of Justice and Equality has set a target of reducing processing times for all first instance decisions to 9 months by the end of this year.

The days of people waiting in limbo for over 5 years for a final decision are hopefully gone but we need to invest further resources in the determination system to ensure that processing times continue to fall.

In light of the increased public interest in the system, what is urgently needed is a road map from the government setting out how it plans to complete the process of reform started out in 2015 by the McMahon Report.

In particular, the establishment of an independent system of inspections is essential to drive improved standards and a culture of continual improvement.

Thereafter a fast and fair determination system coupled with a comprehensive and practical approach to integration is the only sensible way to restore public confidence in the system.

Enda O’Neill is Head of Office for the UN Refugee Agency with responsibility for managing the National Office in Dublin.

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